' ' Cinema Romantico: Restrepo

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


“My mindset was: I’m gonna die.”

I cannot conceive of my mindset ever being: I’m gonna die. I mean, I understand the chances a person supposedly takes every time he or she boards a plane or drives a car or simply sets foot on the street. A car once hurtled up and off the freeway and through that bus stop that is right across from the Blue Line stop on Addison and I’ve stood at the bus stop numerous times. But I never have and never will stand there with a mindset of: I’m gonna die. This, however, is the mindset of every American soldier assigned to Outpost Restrepo on the very front line of the foreboding Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. One of the troops returned from duty explains to the camera that psychologists assigned to talk with the men of Outpost Restrepo are dealing with circumstances no one has seen since WWII since no American soldiers since that time have ever so consistently been under such heavy gunfire and duress.

For the 15 months of its deployment between May 2007 and July 2008 the acclaimed author Sebastian Junger and the war photographer Tim Hetherington embedded themselves with the platoon to record its daily routine, equal parts mundane and life threatening. The film is named after Pfc. Juan Restrepo, only 20, the first man in the platoon to die in the Korengal. He appears good natured and fun loving in the clips presented, strumming his guitar, festively, which seems to suggest that those passages in "From Here To Eternity" where the soldiers sit around and play guitar and sing along ("Re-enlistment Blues") actually weren't all that far fetched, which pleases me.

That, however, is pretty much all that's pleasing about this expert, difficult-to-watch film nominated for Best Documentary at this Sunday's Academy Awards and named the #1 movie of 2010 by my esteemed colleague Castor of Anomalous Material. It refrains from coloring in the plights of all the individual soldiers, choosing instead to paint them as one large militarized family, all for one and one for all, thrust into an impossible situation and fighting back against that impossibility with all they've got. The enemy is never seen, only heard through sporadic gunfire, distant and unknowable but ceaselessly present.

Why is the platoon here? To build a relationship with the locals against the Taliban so that, in turn, they can assist each other in building a road through the Korengal to close the distance between them and the rest of their nation and, thus, create jobs and bring money. Supposedly. All this is addressed in meetings the Americans take with elders of various villages in the valley. The most haunting shot to this viewer did not involve attack or gunfire but a U.S. commanding officer explaining to the locals how much this theoretical road could benefit them and the camera focusing in on one disinterested local yawning. It would seem much of the ongoing plight in Afghanistan could be found right there in that man's yawn.

Hetherington and Junger, though, never take sides and allow the images, some staggering, some low-key, some staggering because they're so low-key, speak for themselves. "Black Hawk Down" still contains my favorite war film line when Eric Bana says, nearly disinterestedly, "Don't really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head politics and all that shit just goes right out the window." It's my favorite line because it's just so right. All these soldiers sent into a valley of death by others who they don't see, don't know, and never will know. It really doesn't matter what they think. But shouldn't it matter, at least a little, what they think?


Wretched Genius said...

I liked this film, but thought it was far from amazing. It didn't help that I had read numerous glowing reviews and had multiple people personally tell me how great the film was. When I watched it, I just kinda thought, "Yeah, that's exactly how I've always pictured everyday life for the troops. What the Hell were all you people thinking it was like?" And without being shocked by their situation, the movie isn't as powerful. It's just a slice-of-life piece with front line soldiers.

And sorry to be "this guy," but PFC. Restrepo wasn't the first person in their unit to be killed. They mention other soldiers who were killed prior to Restrepo's death. But since Restrepo was a beloved figure in the unit, his death was felt deeper.

Castor said...

Glad you gave this a watch. No matter what one thinks of our involvement far away from our land, every American should still be aware of the sacrifices made by our troops fighting the war.